At the Burnham Center, it’s the community before you

It’s not mathematically correct, but I’ve long believed that 1 + 1 = 3 – that people working together can accomplish more than each person working alone.

A sport that relies on teamwork is competitive sailing. There are hardly any tasks on a racing yacht that one person can do alone; trusted teammates are needed to get things done safely and quickly. And sailors know it: to win a race, the team must act as one.

As a keen competitive sailor, Malin Burnham understands and values ​​teamwork. He incorporated these principles into the Burnham Center for Community Engagement (BCCA), a “think-and-do” group that officially opened last summer. BCCA envisions making the binational San Diego area a better place to live, work and play for everyone, building on the power of community.

BCCA picked up a quick victory. In November, San Diego-Tijuana was selected as the World Design Capital for 2024. The bid showed how our region is taking a human-centered approach to design, creating more interconnected communities to solve global problems like as climate change and social inequalities. BCCA was one of the organizations that spearheaded the bid campaign, the result of a multi-year effort led by a bi-national team of designers, innovators and civic leaders.

So, in Burnham fashion, it was a collaborative effort.

Along with the World Design Capital offering, BCCA’s top priorities include revitalizing Balboa Park, increasing economic opportunity for all, improving housing affordability, and rebuilding our community fabric.

Burnham’s community orientation was honed by the reading he did three years ago. He was struck by the company’s estrangement from the community and the consequences it had: a loss of connection – even between neighbors – and growing polarization.

But Burnham has long been community-minded. In 2016 he wrote a book called “Community Before Self: Seventy Years of Making Waves”. The book explains how anyone can live a life of integrity and generosity, regardless of income, political views, or age.

Burnham invited the National Conflict Resolution Center to become one of BCCA’s first partners. Last summer, we launched the Civic Engagement Initiative with support from the San Diego County Health and Human Services Administration as part of the Live Well Exchange. We work with BCCA to facilitate conversation between project stakeholders, a process that begins with the discovery of shared values.

Over six months, participants built a cohesive community bond. This has led to a move away from competitive thinking towards more collaborative and inclusive problem solving and decision making. It also led to a realization that lasting results are more likely when all voices and interests are heard.

The NCRC facilitated four dialogue events. In a session focused on refocusing on collaboration, we conducted an exercise called “Just Seven Things.” It’s a different take on the principles of teamwork that emphasizes the need to collaborate and compromise when the stakes are high and time is short.

Participants are informed that in about 10 minutes they will be teleported to an uninhabited island. They must work together to identify just seven things their group can provide to survive indefinitely. Items must be real; all seven should be able to fit in a large backpack or duffel bag. They are divided into small groups and only have seven minutes to complete the exercise.

Eden Yaege participated in the Civic Engagement Initiative. Yaege is Past President of the Clairemont City Council and sits on the San Diego City Councils Network Organizing Committee.

When Yaege was approached to join the group, she couldn’t imagine adding anything to an already full plate. By the second session, she was eager to choose a project and wondered, what is all this about? In the third meeting, Yaege had his moment of understanding: The goal is the process.

This came to him while exercising on the island. Yaege said, “I found (our group) produced a much better roster when everyone was free to participate and be heard. We were able to discuss the pros and cons based on a level of trust. Everyone was working towards a common goal. This led to more suggestions and better decisions because the goal was to listen – not just be right.

Yaege also told us that the participation gave him a better understanding of the commonalities of issues in the region, as well as tools to build a more civil community. She learned the power of a group with shared principles.

That’s exactly what Burnham knew would happen.

Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group that works to find solutions to difficult issues, including intolerance and incivility. To learn more about NCRC programming, visit

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